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updated 6/4/2009 3:43:09 PM ET 2009-06-04T19:43:09

Cell phones let you chat with friends, send emails and even guide you to the nearest pizza joint. But now these toys are acquiring more serious roles: They're turning into personal and environmental sensors useful for health and science.

Equipped with high-tech GPS, cameras and other sensing devices, cell phones can allow individuals to monitor their environment and their health. They can connect groups and whole communities, letting them exchange information about their surroundings. And they can even turn people into "citizen scientists" who contribute data to scientific research.

Researchers at the UCLA's Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, or CENS, have given this type of data gathering and interpretation using cell phones a name: participatory sensing.

This group and others throughout the world are working to develop the technologies and systems that will make participatory sensing possible. A few of these systems have already emerged. Researchers imagine users logging and learning about their travel patterns, exercise habits or pollution exposure, for example.

The widespread usage of cell phones makes them powerful tools for gathering information about our lives and local communities. Close to half of the world's population uses cell phones, and many of these phones come with data-collecting devices.

"The notion of participatory sensing is really [to leverage] that already diffused and invested in technology," said Debora Estrin, the founding director of CENS. "It's not just that the cell phone towers and infrastructure are there, it's also that the devices are actually in people's pockets and things that they take great care to carry around with them."

Tapping into this user network could provide all kinds of information.

What's your pollution exposure?
One of CENS' up-and-coming participatory sensing projects is a program called the "Personal Environment Impact Report," or PEIR. This tool is designed to give users a view of their travel patterns, carbon footprint and pollution exposure.

12 really, really ugly cell phonesUsers first download an application to their phone. Then, as they go about their day, the phone gets location information from a GPS device and uploads these points to a server along with a time stamp. When users view the data, they can get a sense of how their commuting and mobility patterns affect the environment, and how the environment affects them. The data can help a user make commuting decisions, such as when to start the work day, when to carpool and when to use public transportation.

"It lets you investigate your particular patterns and then make the most optimal of decisions," says Estrin. Users don't necessarily need to use it every day for years, she adds. "It's more a diagnostic tool, the way that you go to a personal trainer and say, 'How do I optimize my exercise to address my particular physical needs?'" But instead of addressing fitness, PEIR addresses the consequences of your travel routine.

To tell you about what sorts of pollutants you may have breathed in during your daily commute, PEIR uses data that is already being collected about weather and traffic patterns.

"This model will take in a location point, [it] will take in what the current traffic was at that moment and what the weather was at that moment, and then it can output what that person's exposure was to air pollution," says Nithya Ramanathan, a postdoctoral fellow at CENS. "It's kind of a cool way that we use analysis in place of having to buy an expensive sensor, because actually getting a sensor that can measure this level of pollution in the air is very expensive."

Currently, PEIR is being piloted in some areas of California.

Monitoring health
Participatory sensing could also help people monitor their exercise habits and medication adherence — behaviors that are particularly important with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Many people loose track of how much they move around or they fall off their medication schedule, and cell phone sensors may help individuals avoid these situations.

In the same way that PEIR monitors your travel habits, a CENS project called "footsteps" measures your walking activity. A program like this helps users be more aware of health behaviors that might otherwise go unnoticed, says Estrin. "When you fall and break your hip, you notice that. When you slowly, over the course of a year, drop off in how mobile you are and how much you move around, that's something that's much more [likely to] sneak up on you."

Cell phones can also be programmed to ask users questions about how often they take their medication, or when they experience particular side effects to their drugs. A CENS project called "And Wellness" is testing a program like this with the UCLA Global Center for Children and Families. 

Citizen scientists
Cell phones can also allow ordinary citizens to contribute to scientific studies or conservation efforts. CENS has several citizen science campaigns in the works.

One project, "Invasive Species Watch," plans to allow users to document places they find invasive plant species, such as weeds — including the Yellow Starthistle and Harding grass — that are harming the natural ecosystems. CENS has just started a pilot program working with the National Park Service.

The idea is to have concerned citizens take location-tagged pictures of the invasive plants and send them to the NPS. With this information, conservation biologists can map and find ways to take action against these damaging species.

So far, CENS programs are not widely available to the public. Something like PEIR would require an investor or corporate partner to make the application available to millions of users. The researchers are also still working on ways to make sure the data will be kept private, and figuring out how to launch these programs so that whole communities can get involved.

But unlike some futuristic visions, participatory sensing programs require no new technology. Just new ways of using the old stuff.

"Sometimes when you read these things that are somewhere between present and future, they're waiting for another component to emerge, or to become that much cheaper, or to become deployed," says Estrin. "[But] in this context, it's really all about a shift in usage."

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